Reading Review: The Shining by Stephen King

I broke one of my rules. I’m a strict reader-before-film guy. Friends will ask me to go to the cinema for a movie and I’ll ask first ‘is it a book?’ I don’t like watching things before I’ve read them. Sometimes, I learn that a film was derived from a book after watching it and I have to swallow this. Other times I’ve let it fly because I’m reading other things. I do my best.

The Shining was a film I watched ages ago and vowed to read the book ASAP. I have only just done so…

The Shining is about the Torrance family of three, Jack, Wendy and their son Danny. Jack takes a job as over-winter caretaker at The Overlook hotel, which is millions of miles and aeons from anywhere. The hotel has a dark history, as does Jack Torrance. Danny has powers that are unexplainable. They are briefed by some of the hotel employees, who then leave the Torrances for six months. Cue King’s supernatural happenings and boom, you’ve got a killer story.

I was amazed by the pacing of The Shining. King can drive me crazy sometimes with his lack of movement in plot; I characterise him as having incredible beginnings that lead to a lull for 200 pages  to then pick up and then drop you in an ending that leaves you unanswered and maybe a little shakey. Not here. The Shining is a definitive novel of how you show the breakdown of a character or rather, how you can exploit a character’s past traumas and resurrect them into present actions and shape a narrative that both progresses, yet dialogues with the past. King brings in the past conflicts of Jack, Wendy, Danny and all the inhabitants of The Overlook into a melting pot of wandering voices and stir crazy dialogue… And metaphysical wasps/marine life… Jack Torrance alone is worth tracking this entire novel; his emotions are an absolute rollercoaster of love-abusive-understanding with the potential to flip at any moment and damage his most loved ones.

The setting is golden. The Overlook is the perfect liminal space for King to goad the reader into and trap them with the family. The rules of the building shift with the characters and I found myself threatened by the supernatural horror occurring as King treads the fine line of what happens in the physical and what happens in the mind. He works symbolism tightly to every function of character and emotion, executing tension build and climax to perfection.

The defining part of the book for me is when Mr Hallorann, the Overlook janitor, tells Danny about his shining. It’s a tender moment of strangers connecting over a magic they both possess and Hallorann’s revelations are heart breaking and honest. It’s incredible story telling throughout.

Criticisms could be King’s lack of balancing force in Wendy; she is often just silenced or put down by Jack in situations where he threatens her child and she is never given an opportunity to properly overcome Jack’s abuse. I’d have liked it more if she had been written to not give up so soon in situations and I think King missed a trick by not bringing her supernatural energies into The Overlook. That could have brought even more dimensions to this book.

Overall, classic King, definitely one of his tightest writings, definitely worth reading, even if it’s to find all of the inspirations of intertextual references…

Read When: You want supernatural happenings, threat, creepiness, thriller, liminal, gothic, Stephen King…
Don’t Read When: You want to chill out, light reading or if you’ve seen the film recently, it’s WAY different in some aspects…

Stephen King, The Shining, 1977, New English Library.

2015 APPLICATIONS OPEN!

Poetry&Words at Glastonbury Festival

CALLING ALL POETS, spoken word artists, wordsmiths, lyricists, raconteurs, stand-up poets and slam champs…

2015 is flexing its lexicon in anticipation of a phenomenal year, and we at Poetry&Words are once again opening the floodgates to all you wonderfully talented poetry types. SO, if you want to perform your work on Glastonbury Festival’s poetry stage, then this is your chance! We’re looking for applications from experienced writers and performers, with something awesome to offer the audience of the world’s biggest greenfield arts festival.

If you think that could be you, then please e-mail poetryandwords@hotmail.co.uk with a short Bio and 1-3 video and/or audio files of you performing your work. We’re happy to receive either attachments (of a manageable size!) or web links. We can also provide a snail mail address if you’d rather do things the old fashioned way!

We do pay a fee, but this is only small…

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Reading Review: Thud! by Terry Pratchett

Terry Pratchett has possibly been the most recommended writer during my life. As I built myself as a younger/teen reader, I was always surfing the fantasy/sci-fi spectrum; Harry Potter, His Dark Materials, then tumbling into the darker stuff by Darren Shan, James Herbert and Stephen King, so on. This always involved my hands stumbling near the vast canon of Terry Pratchett’s The Discworld Novels, rows and rows of books, all exploring the various sections and characters of Pratchett’s universe. I would ask people where to start, because apparently it doesn’t matter and I never took it upon myself to discover what the first one was.

Thud! was thrown at me recently. I have ignored this writer for too long, blocked by the fear of where to begin. I clambered into the Discworld on the back of trolls and dwarfs and protagonist Sam Vimes, who is searching for a mystery murderer of a Dwarven king, while racial tensions rise.

The problem with hype is nothing stands up against how much you’re told something is good. I’ve been endlessly indoctrinated with how he’s funny, how he throws out mad concepts in super-sharp-sci-fi-surreal beauty and how he works allegory into such exciting tales.

I didn’t laugh through Thud! The presence of humour was probably in the fart jokes that most of the characters are called… The only concept I really liked was how a vampire couldn’t feel all together after turning into ‘bats mode’ until each and every bat had reconnected. Thud! discusses racial prejudice in an insightful way. The whole book is based on the conflict between trolls and dwarves who share the same living environment but can’t work together because of their racial differences AND Pratchett breaches the issues of policing within these parameters/tensions. Sweet allegory, right? But it’s dulled by a bland story full of characters who all talk the same. I could only follow the protagonist Sam Vimes’ voice because he occurred the most. I forgot who most of the dwarves and trolls were otherwise… Oh yeah, there’s a woman vampire and werewolf who obviously have to be naked at some point for their transformation in front of male characters, har har har… It’s just cheap and dull. Also the only way I know when a vampire is talking is because they get all ‘vwhere vare vyou vgoing.’ You know? The ‘V’s that vampires put in front of everything they say? Bleh. Cookie-cutter characters.

For the majority of the book, we’re not even taken to scene of action; it’s always reported in speech. There’s a climactic action sequence towards the end, written well and easy to follow, but it took me 350 pages to get there. WHY?!

A major fault for me is the establishing work of the book. It takes about 80 pages to be fully swatted up on where we are in Discworld. JUST THROW ME INTO THE STORY, MAN! YOU HAVE A LOT OF BOOKS TO DO BACK-STORY ON, JUST SHOW ME THE WORLD… Bleh.

I’m a victim of the hype. There are poetic moments and granted Pratchett’s obscene bibliography (you could probably stock an entire library section with his canon) it’s certain that he’d drop a dud. Maybe I should start with the first book and work my way here? I just hoped every book would live up to the creativity I’m endlessly told Pratchett writes with. An absolute plus of this book is its race allegory and it’s encouraging how that might help younger readers broach this subject.

I’m not going to black-hole Pratchett. I just think I need to get over the hype and throw myself elsewhere before more Discworld adventures.

Read When: You want some fantasy, some allegory, lighter reading.
Don’t Read When: You want character.

Thud! by Terry Pratchett, 2006, Corgi Books

Reading Review: Two Plays – The Crucible by Arthur Miller and Invisible by Tena Štivičić

I’m not cross examining the plays… they are too different. I read them one after the other and thought I’d open a dialogue to discuss whether we should read more plays other than engaging with them in the form that they are written to be delivered in. Cue Christmas bestselling lists of playscripts…

The Crucible by Arthur Miller is a play engaging with the witch trials that took place in Massachusetts and other regions of America in the 17th century. A town descends into hysteria over the discovery that there might be witches among their townsfolk. It serves as a comment on how quickly people can denounce each other and lose their lives or livelihood in the defence of others. Mob brutality, family, fear and faith challenges are the themes present here. It’s full of shouting and brash action, accusations and court room drama. Miller writes in a deliberated, heavy-set way, each character talks with the very depth of their being. I’m not asking for light moments in what is obviously a dark and cruel moment in American history, but the dynamic of the play is the descent of a train down a dark tunnel never to emerge.

Its plot moves fast and gets more harrowing by the moment. In attempt to assume control over directorial decisions on the play, Miller lumbers in reams of backstory behind each pivotal character, which would not appear on stage, but as a reading experience, is a load of sludge to walk through. Still, the moment of denouncing the accused witch and transformative scenes are tense, climactic and the definition of how to build and release character conflict within a drama.

Invisible by Tena Štivičić is a play that tracks the lives of numerous emigrant workers from various parts of Europe to England. It’s a snapshot-story where we are fed glimpses of the character’s hardships, relationships and actual hips shaking in a dance scene. It’s a stunning work of weaving character’s pathways and does well to keep scenes short and sharp. Themes of social struggle, love, family, race. It’s a blueprint play, where the reader is provided with no stage directions, no actions that could define a character, no visual quirks that tell us about their ticks, their physicality in situations… Why not?! The dialogue is swift, sharp, realistic, but could be even more streamlined by a movement of character. At one point a character punches another and the only thing indicating this in the text is character shouting ‘AH, YOU PUNCHED ME!’

Playwriting is a visual form. I don’t know if Štivičić is a director and would have mainly devised actions over these words in rehearsal, but as it stands in text, Invisible is just a bunch of people talking. Maybe that’s OK in book form. But I feel the book version of a play should make some attempt to hold the audience in the way the lay would on stage. Everything said on stage is moved through so quick you have to just hope the audience has caught what has been said and is following you. Having the book of the play allows you to hold the dialogue for as long as possible, BUT you then have the handicap of no visuals that are necessary to the playwriting form. So, maybe Štivičić’s Invisible works in the best written form of a play… or it’s the worst.

The Crucible is different. The play’s text can almost be read as a historical document which would drive me to boredom aloud but works on the page. However, Miller has some moments of incredible action that injects momentum into the character’s dialogue and suits to build and release their conflict. On page, these sections are some of his best writing, giving us stark, metaphoric movements which really stretch your imagination. This works best for me, I love visuals and knowing I can treat this play as a piece of writing and a performance simultaneously.

I’m an advocate of plays working both forms. The delivery of a play is unrivalled by any form of writing, you can make characters do anything. Within the text, the play should allow us further insight into the dialogue we want to hold onto for a little bit longer AND allow the audience in our minds to see everything as they would in the theatre. I don’t know if this is elitist, if anything this would make plays the most accessible they could be, but you can’t beat a theatrical show. I should probably go and see both plays and really cross reference how they work live too…

Arthur Miller, The Crucible, first published in 1953, Penguin Modern Classics.
Read/See When: You want something harrowing, something dark, explosive plot, something religiously challenging, something historical.
Don’t Read/See When: You want to relax, you want something light, you want something quiet.

Tena Štivičić, Invisible, 2011, Nick Hern Books.
Read/See When: You want social commentary, snapshot narrative, characters to follow.
Don’t Read/See When: You want something light, something visually dynamic (who knows!?!).

Reading Review: The Gum Thief by Douglas Coupland

I first stumbled into Douglas Coupland’s writing with his language-landslide of a book JPod, which follows the lives of six game developers who are well developed characters, full of conflict and quirk, living in a satirised world that Coupland sinks us into within the use of subliminal-advertising-style typography breaks and symbols. It’s a fun book, a deep book, a meta-book and definitely worth pursuing for all the narrative jerks and laughs.

The Gum Thief is almost, on looking, nearby, stumbling towards this direction of quality, but falls into a well just before crossing the border. Go-go-gadget reading metaphor. I read this book to give my head a rest from the onslaught of the last two I had eaten (see Paradise and Footnotes In Gaza), so granted, I wanted something lighter. The Gum Thief is a light book. It’s slim on plot, on narrative tension, on anything that really makes it a grab-up-and-go adventure.

It’s a discourse, essentially, between two characters who hate their jobs at Staples; a man who is a manic-depressive recovering alcoholic and a woman, a goth who goes to Europe and gets screwed over by the guy she travels with. The man is writing a book called Glove Pond (points for title) which is a narrative device that holds all the characters of The Gum Thief together, while serving as a fun meta element.

Coupland is great at shaping character, mainly because he deals with the idiosyncratic. There were no moments of cheap, throwaway ‘this makes a man character manly’ lines and vice versa for the women. Great development of each speaker’s voice and how they bleed their everyday situations into their interactions is close to that of how you imagine humans speak… Great dimensional people.

BUT character is all there really is here. A few driving plot moments happen but these are mitigated in immediacy and punch by the letter-writing style of delivery – everything is told in hindsight, so there’s no grab or urgency. Each section or chapter is marked by who is talking and you’re thrown into rambling existential crises for 200 or so pages. That’s all The Gum Thief is. Existential crises.

Coupland shapes these crises in the form of body issues, being drunk, having no direction in life, being deluded into thinking you can write a novel… It’s all a bit surface level. I expected to have the cutting scenarios and interactions that Coupland presented in JPod, doing so well to show a reader a character’s struggle and desperation through external conflict and zany plot twists. But The Gum Thief is just a pond… A glove pond.

Maybe that’s what book needed to be. Does everything have to be deep? I certainly don’t think so, but I do feel you have to create with the same edge and inspiration that drives all of work, even if you’re making something lighter. Debate away.

Read When: You’re having an existential crisis, want something light, want something funny…ish.
Don’t Read When: You want the deepness, plot, narrative momentum.

The Gum Thief, Douglas Coupland, Bloomsbury Publishing, 2007

Reading Review: Footnotes In Gaza by Joe Sacco

Gaza needs no introduction. It’s been an ever present conflict zone for generations upon generations of people. It’s a conflict that I’ve only begun scratching the surface with and I’m not sure I’ll ever understand the full picture. I’ve been doing my best to seek sources of writing that show personal stories from the conflict to gain snapshots of how the struggle and on-going war affects those involved.

I stumbled across Joe Sacco’s Footnotes In Gaza after getting into graphic novels and quickly learnt that he’s one of the pioneers in a genre of war reportage comics. Something you could be sceptical of, as cartoons are our resource of satire and escapism, but after reading this graphic novel, it’s possibly one of the sharpest ways I’ve seen in terms of documenting a history of conflict.

Joe Sacco sets off to investigate two massacres that occur in the Gaza Strip in November 1956. He’s trying to find out information about Khan Younis and Rafah, which are the two sites for the incidents which happened during the Suez Crisis. Sacco’s premise is that these incidents have become footnotes in the tragic history of Gaza and he is working to document a narrative thread as close to the truth as possible.

The graphic novel form fits this exploration well as it allows Sacco to leap time and interviewee per panel, allowing the reader to keep a detailed track of events as Sacco learns about them. A recurring challenge that Sacco meets is the fragility of memory. As Gaza is such an ongoing site of crisis and war, the interviewees he finds sometimes get their times mixed up and there is extensive sifting through the book where Sacco digs to the deep truths. For me, this book’s truth is how severe the conflict has been and how that has led to death being an everyday aspect for all people living within Gaza.

The art fits the means of the text. Sacco’s animations are comic book-esque but not to the degradation of the stories he is chasing. If anything, it serves as an element of detachment from the horrendous scenes. This is a good or bad thing.

It’s a harrowing read, but honest and works well to counter any potential bias of a writer exploring this conflict. Sacco lets every account stand for itself and openly states how he isn’t sure how close he gets in his report to the absolute truth. But Footnotes In Gaza works to capture these incidents in a forever-tome, that will help future readers come to this book and learn not to forget each and every incident that happens in a brutal conflict.

Read When: You want to learn more about Gaza history and its present state and you want to explore war reportage graphic novels as a form, or more generally, who the form of panelling/graphic novel narrative can be used in different ways.
Don’t Read When: You want something light, something conclusive.

Footnotes In Gaza, Joe Sacco, Metropolitan Books, 2010.

Reading Review: Paradise by Toni Morrison

This is the kind of book I can’t read to relax… Each sentence makes me want to hide or slam the book down and drown in the happy happy parts of my music collection. I want to run away but I can’t let go. Paradise, by Toni Morrison, is a bullet, a kaleidoscopic-thematic bullet that completely undoes what you thought a novel could be. It’s a wash of voice, each protagonist a heavyweight character with dark and quirk and conflict with each turn of phrase. It’s arresting.

Set in a fictional town, Ruby, Paradise tracks the lives of a group of women who find themselves colliding with each other at different points of time around a Convent.
What’s beautiful is how these collisions happen. There’s no linear time here, no chance to gauge where you are because by the next paragraph, Morrison leaps voice, character, setting. You learn about each character in drips, tiny slivers of story that Morrison bleeds in when you least expect but when you most need it. This is poetry. I can forever talk about how prose can be ‘poetic’ and never really know what I’m talking about, but Paradise is poetry. It is narrative that isn’t susceptible to lineation. It relies on the language and how that catapults you from past to present to future to now to then to who? It’s a storm.

Themes are of race, faith, identity, equality and family; how we have to rely on each other in times of hardship and the pressures that are brought about by this. The hardships in this novel are created by the men, the domineering, corrupt and violent men of Ruby. Paradise charts the endurance of women who suffer and in some cases overcome these challenges. It is a reality that Morrison has managed to capture in this book as she gives us characters that are purely shaped by their actions upon each other. This allows her to drive us to core of how men abuse their power, to then show us a spectrum of how this can manifest. Morrison also presents the women of Paradise as flawed, highlighted by how they conflict with each other when they have so much working against them. This is a book of equality in its exploration of inequality. It builds characters as humans, people who act upon their prejudices, their background influences and external forces that lead to situations where people get hurt or sacrifices are made.

Criticism could be that it’s a challenging book to pick up and sink back into. It can be jagged at times with block sections of such crowded prose that I found I would sometimes forget whose story I was following. I believe that’s another element that Morrison has implemented in the language of this novel; everyone is lost in Ruby, or on their way to being so. This is how we get lost with them. I would recommend anyone to get lost with them.
This is a heavy book. Beautiful but heavy. I will be taking a break from Toni Morrison but Paradise has shifted my approach to writing and reading, so I will definitely return to her work in the future.

How to open chapters with Toni Morrison:
‘They shoot the white girl first.’
‘The neighbour seemed pleased when the babies smothered.’
‘Either the pavement was burning or she had sapphires hidden in her shoes.’
‘In the good clean darkness of the cellar, Consalata woke to the wrenching disappointment of not having died the night before.’

Read When: You want a challenge with language used, character, narrative style and thematic blades.
Don’t Read When: You want escapism, light reading.

Toni Morrison, Paradise, 1997, Alfred A. Knopf

Burn After Reading Blog

http://barpoetry.tumblr.com/

I’m really lucky to be a part of another London based collective, Burn After Reading, that is pushing the boundaries of poetry and its ever developing engagement with the world. Above is a link to our blog. I’m one of the lead writers and editors of content for the blog and you can use it to keep up to date with our news, events and poetry. Check it out and take a wander!

Poetry Video: ‘It’s A Bird, No, It’s A Plane, No, It’s Just My Neighbour, Superman Is Saving Elsewhere’

A performance of a poem I wrote engaging with the BARPo theme of ‘Superheroes and Villains,’ as part of our monthly poetry night, Burn After Reading Presents… at the Seven Dials Club, Covent Garden, London.

For BARPo Happenings, check out our website at: http://barpoetry.tumblr.com/
My Youtube playlist is here: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLe391QHLvLjl83E_HDxspM2UTBx-bULtT